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WASHINGTON — A handful of personal care companies are looking to the U.S. government to clarify regulations for organic labeling and advertising claims.
Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, Intelligent Nutrients, Organic Essence and the Organic Consumers Association filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program on Jan. 14 against 13 personal care companies they alleged have made false organic claims on their products.
Companies named in the complaint include some of the better-known natural beauty brands, specifically Hain Celestial Group’s Jasön Pure Natural and Organic and Avalon Organics brands; Kiss My Face Corp.; Levlad LLC’s Nature’s Gate Organics; YSL Beauté Inc.’s Stella McCartney Care 100% Organic Active Ingredients, and Organic Wear, made by Physicians’ Formula Holdings.
The complaint specifically went after products that have the word “organic” in their product name but which don’t use a single certified organic product in their formulation, said Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director for the Organic Consumers Association.
A spokeswoman for Hain Celestial said the company does not comment on ongoing litigation and declined to comment on the recent complaint, but she said the company does feel there should be a personal care-specific organic standard. The company believes the USDA should govern the certification of organic personal care and cosmetics products because it is the only agency equipped to handle national regulations, the spokeswoman said.
A spokeswoman for the Stella McCartney brand said the company had not received a complaint from the USDA, and that the “skin care product line is currently not available for sale in the U.S. and was discontinued at the end of 2008.”
The other companies named in the complaint did not return calls seeking comment.
According to the complaint, using the word “organic” on a personal care product implies that the main ingredient of that product is organic. Without proper regulation of those ingredients, using the term can create a false impression with consumers. A simple statement of policy from the USDA would resolve the problem, Baden-Mayer said.
“All kinds of conventional products are being marketed as organic, and no one is watching what’s going into those products,” Baden-Mayer said. “Consumers need to believe that the organic standard is trustworthy. This fraud will degrade consumer perception of organic in general.”
For companies competing in the organic marketplace, the integrity of the term is an important business issue.
“We’re on the shelf competing with all this ‘organic’ noise,” said David Bronner, president of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps. “We’re being harmed. Any true organic firm is. And the consumer is being misled.”
The National Organic Program administers the USDA’s “certified organic” seal and the “made with organic products” claim that can be used on consumer products. Since 2005, the claims have been used on any product that contains agricultural products, including personal care and cosmetics products that are able to meet the agency’s stringent requirements.
Under the Bush administration, the National Organic Program took a “hands-off regulatory approach,” according to the Organic Consumers Association, and failed to address deceptive labeling issues. There is hope now that increased resources under the Obama administration could allow for more regulatory efforts, Bronner said.
Farah Ahmed, assistant general counsel for the Personal Care Products Council and manager of the association’s natural and organic committee, said consumers need choices when they look for guarantees on organic personal care items. There are, she pointed out, several well-respected certifications for organic claims aside from the official seal administered by the USDA.
“I don’t know that there is confusion over the term [among consumers] or overuse,” Ahmed said. The Personal Care Products Council is concerned that stricter regulations from the government could stifle innovation in the organic personal care category, Ahmed said.
The companies that filed the complaint disagree. When the natural personal care space grew significantly, rendering the term “natural” virtually meaningless, many brands started using organic instead, said Ellery West, founder and owner of Organic Essence. Now overuse of that term threatens how meaningful it is as well, he said.
“Consumers are being ripped off by marketers who don’t want to go the extra mile to be organic certified,” said Horst Rechelbacher, founder of Intelligent Nutrients, as well as the founder and former owner of Aveda Corp.
Rechelbacher, who has spent decades manufacturing products that tout their use of responsible ingredients, said overuse of the term organic “pollutes the industry,” he said. “It’s damaging — it’s definitely damaging, and it’s going to create consumer confusion. Then it will create consumer mistrust,” Rechelbacher said.
Companies that take the time and incur the cost of sourcing 100 percent organic ingredients and formulations are losing out, Bronner said.
Dr. Bronner’s has been actively pushing for changes in regulations for personal care organic claims in other arenas, as well. The company has a pending lawsuit in San Francisco federal court against many of the same companies named in the USDA complaint. If the agency won’t do something, Bronner said, the court case is a backup. The parties involved also may consider filing a false advertising claim with the Federal Trade Commission, he said.
Bronner said his preference would be for the National Organic Program to step in and clarify guidelines for organic claims.